Signature Theatre begins the first year of Lynn Nottage’s residency with a new production of Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, a wildly funny and wildly outlandish modern-day Everyman. Or Everywoman.
Although Undine (Cherise Booth) is not, by any stretch of the imagination, representative of Everywoman—or any woman. Nottage’s heroine is a nonpareil New Yorker, who worked her way from public housing in Brooklyn to an elite private school to Dartmouth, and then founded her own “very fierce boutique PR firm catering to the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche.”
But Nottage is not interested in the road to success; she unveils Undine at the pinnacle, and guides us through Undine’s rudely abrupt descent back to her hardscrabble roots in the Walt Whitman housing project on Myrtle Avenue. Hence, “the re-education of Undine.” Neither is Nottage interested in moralizing. Every step along Undine’s Job-like path is played limned with sharp jabs of humor, with sometimes sketch-like interludes. Quite frequently, in fact, the playwright has her heroine step out of the story to comment in sardonic and often contradictory manner.
The playwright, at this point, needs little introduction to discerning audiences anywhere. She startled the legit theater world in 2004 with her first mainstream offering, Intimate Apparel (and wouldn’t we like to see a new production of that one). This was followed ten weeks later by Fabulation, at Playwrights Horizons. She won a Pulitzer in 2009 for Ruined and a second in 2017 for Sweat. Nottage is the only woman to win multiple Pulitzers for drama, an exclusive club otherwise consisting of Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Bob Sherwood, Tennessee Williams, George S. Kaufman, August Wilson, and Edward Albee.
Nottage’s most recent production was the intriguing Mlima’s Tale, at the Public in April. More to the point is the 2011 By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, which came between the two Pulitzer winners. Vera Stark—which will be staged in January as part of Signature’s Lynn Nottage Season—was indeed, wildly funny and outlandish; two traits which we might not otherwise associate with the author of Intimate Apparel, Ruined, and Sweat.
Ms. Booth serves as a capable guide to the title character’s unravelling, keeping this journey to the underworld ever-engaging. Standing out among the cast of eight are Dashiell Eaves, as a petrified accountant and a cocaine-addicted English professor; Ian Lassiter, as the heroine’s green-card husband from Argentina, with a lisp, and as the man who eventually brings Undine to contentment; Mayaa Boateng, as a flighty secretary in steel-gray tights and a feathered sweater of Easter-egg blue; and Nikiya Mathis, who demonstrates first-rate buffoonery in several small roles.
The episodic and escapadish manner of Undine’s un-fabulation is well handled by director Lileana Blain-Cruz, an up-and-comer whose work includes Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo (another play we’d like to see again) and Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline. There is especially fine work at Fabulation by set designer Adam Rigg, who humorously follows Undine’s unraveling with a unit set which starts out as a high-design executive audience and deconstructs into a prison. Deft touches are added as well by costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, who sees fit to dress just about all of Undine’s housing project acquaintances—including her father, brother, beau and mother—in slapdash security guard jackets.
Yes, this return visit of Nottage’s early Fabulation is worthy and highly enjoyable. The playwright’s unrestrained humor sparks the play with flashes of lightning; but by the time of Vera Stark, she had developed the skill to display wild humor in a more sustained and controlled manner. Theatergoers who make it to the Signature for both Fabulation and By the Way, Vera Stark are in for a back-to-back double treat.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine opened December 10, 2018, at Signature Center and runs through January 6, 2019. Tickets and information: signaturetheatre.org